Political Interference With Torture Investigations Is Un-American

By Melina Milazzo
Pennoyer Fellow, Law and Security Program

Almost a decade after reports of death and abuse of detainees in U.S. custody at Abu Ghraib and other sites came to light, the prosecutor appointed to look into some of these serious, criminal allegations is reportedly moving forward -- taking a long-awaited, but critical step towards rebuilding America's moral standing. Upholding the rule of law, however, will require an independent, thorough investigation without political interference.

John Durham, the prosecutor tasked with reviewing whether CIA officials committed federal crimes against detainees held in U.S. custody overseas, has reportedly subpoenaed a federal grand jury to investigate possible war crimes and crimes of torture against those agents. Among the cases is that of Manadel al-Jamadi, whose death became public during the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal when photographs depicting U.S. prison guards giving the thumbs-up over his iced corpse were released.

Investigators found that while in U.S. custody al-Jamadi was hooded with a sandbag, with his arms handcuffed behind his back and shackled to a window about five feet from the floor making it impossible for him to kneel or sit without hanging from his arms in pain. U.S. military autopsy found that the cause of death was "Blunt Force Injuries Complicated by Compromised Respiration." His death was ruled a homicide. Despite the CIA's Inspector General referring this case to the Justice Department, no prosecution followed.

Durham's investigation may now change this -- finally bringing some accountability to the virtual impunity that has long plagued this dark U.S. chapter. The United States must reckon with the past policies and practices that subverted American values and principles and badly damaged our moral leadership. Accountability not only provides justice for the individual, but it also ensures past mistakes are not repeated.

Critics, however, have already vociferously attacked Durham's investigation as politically-motivated. Thirty-four Republican Senators reportedly sent a letter to President Obama urging him to end the Justice Department's "politically motivated investigations" of CIA interrogators. Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum, in launching his presidential bid, called Durham's review a "political prosecution" and demanded that his investigation be terminated.

But the only people playing politics here are those who are inappropriately meddling with criminal investigations. The Justice Department is charged with enforcing and upholding our laws. It should always investigate allegations of criminal misconduct with impartiality. In order to do so, prosecutors like Durham must be able to conduct a full, fair and objective review of the facts without political interference. Political interference may not only taint the legitimacy of an investigation's outcome, but it also delays a resolution. The U.S. must deal with its past in order to move forward, and this is something all sides of the political spectrum have an interest in.

To be clear, there are many Republicans who have opposed torture and have stood firmly to uphold the rule of law. Remember, it was a Republican President Ronald Reagan who signed the UN Convention Against Torture that requires signing states to investigate and prosecute for crimes of torture. It also requires that States enact domestic laws that criminalize torture, which Congress did in 1994 in passing the Federal Anti-Torture statute with bi-partisan support. Additionally, it was a Republican member of Congress, Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) that sponsored the War Crimes Act, which passed a Republican-controlled Congress by unanimous consent.

Ironically, these are all the same laws that Durham is trying to uphold and enforce and which some Republicans are attempting to thwart. But those Republicans should be wary of interfering with a criminal investigation. Investigating and providing accountability for past abuses provides justice for past harms and ensures past mistakes are not repeated. Upholding the rule of law is a pillar of American democracy that is not a partisan issue. It's an American principle and value that is too sacred to play the game of politics.